Public Governance and Resources Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 1917

17 August 2017

Dr CHALMERS (Rankin) (11:52): I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on the Public Governance and Resources Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 1917. I was fortunate over the last week or so to have two terrific schools from my electorate visit us here in the parliament. I had St Stephen's from Algester last week, and I had Stretton State College yesterday. They are terrific schools and there were some very sharp young people who asked some great questions, but it was also a reminder for them when they come to this building and see question time, see the fireworks of the higher-profile issues and see all the things that the two sides disagree on, that—I'm sure others in the House at the moment take the opportunity to remind these young Australians about this—there are other things that we agree on. They might not be always the high-profile things, it might not be, by any stretch, big news when we do agree in this building, and there might not be a long list of speakers for bills like the one that I'm speaking on right now, but what we're doing here is pretty important. It is about the management of the precious taxpayer dollars that these kids' parents, neighbours, friends and teachers pay as the price of living in a good society with decent services.

The Public Governance and Resources Legislation Amendment Bill makes technical amendments to 13 different acts. It is part of that objective of ensuring that we have our public financial arrangements as good as they can be. The amendments harmonise 13 different acts with the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013 and the Commonwealth's broader resource management framework. Labor supports these technical amendments that will consistently prescribe listed entities, correct references to the old pieces of financial management legislation, repeal provisions in a number of acts for issues that are now covered by the PGPA Act, such as disclosure of interests and annual reporting requirements, and make minor amendments to legislation consequential to the sale of Medibank Private Limited in 2014. As I said, these are not front-page issues, especially in a week like we're having right now—a week of turmoil and chaos and controversy and uncertainty—but that doesn't make this bill any less important. It is important in ensuring that taxpayers get value for money and that they get the best and most efficient management of their public funds.

I now turn to a bit of history. Labor undertook some pretty significant reforms to the Commonwealth's financial management arrangements when we were last in government, and I am pleased to say that to some extent these changes we are debating today continue in that direction. We are always on the lookout for more that can be done in this general area. The work that we did in government improved—if not established—a framework necessary for a more modern public sector. Those reforms were based on a number of key principles: firstly, that government should operate as a coherent whole; secondly, that a common set of duties should apply to all public resources handled by Commonwealth entities and these should be managed prudently and officially; thirdly, that the performance of the public sector is about more than just financial matters and management; and, fourthly, that engaging with risk is a necessary step in improving performance.

We will be supporting the amendments in this bill, as I said, because they are generally consistent with the directions we set and our broader objectives. That doesn't mean that we don't have some concerns with the way this government has managed our public resources and public governance arrangements in other areas, or that the job is finished with the passage of this legislation. It is a matter of public record, for example, that the Commonwealth budget has deteriorated substantially on this government's watch. The deficit for this year, just to take one number, is 10 times bigger than it was predicted to be in Joe Hockey's first budget. We have gross debt of around half a trillion dollars for the first time in Australian history, an amount that one of the Treasury ministers described as 'a truckload of debt' and 'an extraordinary, an absolutely extraordinary, amount of debt'. Another thing that is not well appreciated in this place, and certainly not in the community, is that gross debt is accumulating at a faster rate now, with good global conditions, under this government than it accumulated under the former Labor government, despite the global financial crisis. We are accumulating debt at a faster rate now than we were then, which should be concerning to all of us here and is concerning to the broader Australian community. It is no wonder that our AAA credit rating, which is coveted and which was hard-won in the course of the last Labor government, is now at risk because of the fiscal performance of those opposite.

We have a big challenge when it comes to the management of our public resources, our precious taxpayer dollars, and I think it is also fair to say—it is probably not a unanimous view in here but certainly fair to say in the broader court of public opinion—that decisions taken in the last couple of weeks have made that financial position, that fiscal position, worse than it needs to be. I notice I have with me in the chamber my colleague the member for Griffith, who has been doing a lot of work on the postal survey that those opposite have proposed as it relates to marriage equality. That is an example really. In this case it is $122 million of precious taxpayer dollars being wasted on what is effectively a harmful and divisive non-binding opinion poll. So, Mr Deputy Speaker, you can see why the budget is in the condition it is in now.

More specifically as it relates to this bill and my portfolio, the Minister for Finance advanced those funds without the usual process. He appropriated $122 million using one of the mechanisms available to him, which is supposed to be justified by the expenditure being urgent and unforeseen. If those opposite think that this is an issue that should be dealt with urgently, let's deal with it urgently, not by wasting $122 million but by doing our jobs and voting for it in this place.

A government member interjecting

Dr CHALMERS: The member opposite can vote his way and we will vote our way. We could get it done and we could save $122 million. These bills are about the proper management of public money and public resources. It is pretty hard to imagine a worse use of that money. This is something that isn't urgent and isn't unforeseen. The so-called postal vote was flagged by the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection in March this year. Having a postal survey is not an unforeseen proposal. It was even mentioned in the statement of risks in the Treasury's own budget in May. This is not an urgent or unforeseen event that we're having now; this postal survey is an unnecessary event that we're having now. It is very divisive, very harmful. It's non-binding—unless the answer is no—so there are substantial problems. And that's an example of the fact that we have more work to do to ensure that we are spending public money in the best possible way. Wasting $122 million on that purpose is certainly not a good use of taxpayer arrangements.

A final point on this: it was astonishing to hear the Treasurer say on breakfast television last week that he considers that $122 million to be money well spent. If he considers it to be money well spent, it's no wonder we have half a trillion dollars in gross debt for the first time in Australian history.

More specifically, this legislation is important. Although it doesn't solve any of the broader problems in the budget. It won't safeguard against the Treasurer's incompetence—I don't think anything could, if I'm honest about that. And it doesn't fix some of the other issues we have with transparency. We'll have more to say about the issues, for example, around remuneration for places like Australia Post and other agencies. You will recall, Deputy Speaker Vasta—of course, you would have followed this very closely—that the PGPA Act provided more flexible arrangements for entities and relied on a number of subordinate rules and regulations. An important part of that effort is that officials are expected to be held to a high standard of accountability. Yet, quite recently, we have seen attempts to hide the remuneration of senior executives on some of our boards. This was enabled by changes to the reporting rules made by the Minister for Finance, Senator Cormann. This bill does not fix that problem, but there are other things we can do to fix that problem.

The government has informally requested a number of Commonwealth entities revert to the previous regime of remuneration reporting. The Auditor-General looked at this and considered that there would be benefit in making the aggregate level of transparency for key management remuneration in the public sector consistent with that required for listed entities. That means that we will have good public standards to match some of the standards we have in the private sector. We welcome the work that the Auditor-General did on this. We welcome the release of those reports, but the government should now act to ensure these are formally required of all Commonwealth entities if they are serious about some of the measures which are dealt with partially in this bill. They could go further. They haven't acted on it. It's an example of some of the further steps that we can take, and we will have more to say on it.

But we do support this legislation. We are always onboard for further improvements to public governance and the management of public resources, especially when they build on the good work of former Labor governments, as these amendments do. There will be even more to do after these bills pass with the support of both sides.